I was about to publish one of my periodic comments on the prevalence of graffiti in my part of North Oxford and at the failure by both Oxford City Council and the police to do anything either to prevent it or to clear it up.
My most recent post was in April (see Oxford graffiti gets worse) and concerned, as before, the track leading to Port Meadow and the bridge across the railway. I was then (and remained) angry that the dullards of Oxford City Council had boasted of a project to clear graffiti quickly but had in fact merely sprayed paint over some of, thus permanently ruining decent brickwork and providing the yobbos with a blank canvas. I suggested that they just left it alone until someone more active, caring and competent took over the job.
My update post has been pre-empted by a comment from a reader which to not be ignored even if I do not agree with what he says. His comment (published, unusually for me, in full) is as follows:
“Having read your article about graffiti may I suggest an alternative view as a nearly sixty year old.
Some of the graffiti on the wall and bridge at Aristotle lane is some of the best I have ever seen and I regard the path over the railway as the finest modern art gallery in Oxford.
If the critics would care to look at the last picture on the wall on the right as one enters Port Meadow they will see that the tiny plants growing out of the mortar have been carefully spared the application of silver paint. It is beautiful. It is benign and as one of the graffiti says on the other side of the bridge I don’t bite – or somesuch. I dread to think what the council workers will do to the plants when they apply their expensive chemicals.
I have today photographed one, written above it is the graffitio nom de guerre Posh Hosh. It is a beautiful hybrid between a sort of oriental straw script and a depiction of bamboo formed by paint run.
If Oxford were to challenge any other city in Britain for quality graffiti it would win hands down.
It is a free and vibrant social art.
Look at it. Enjoy it”
I think I can accept that there can be such a thing as “quality graffiti”. I think I can recognise that I am not city’s expert in modern art. I can, nevertheless discriminate with reasonable accuracy between art and the mindless scrawlings of an under-occupied yob. If this is indeed the best modern art in the city then Andrew Nairne (the recently retired head of MOMA) has laboured in vain.
I am not sure that its status as art or not, or any qualitative assessment of its status relative to any other local collection is really relevant anyway. Youths have sprayed paint all over the bridge, along the path leading up to it, and on the bridge piers. Unlike other art collections in the city, I have no choice as to whether I gaze on it. I am reasonably sure that most of the passers-by and all of the residents preferred the paintwork without graffiti. That was certainly the view of all the political parties standing for election in May, since they all made commitments to the effect that, if elected, they would deal with graffiti. Labour won, and it is always hard to tell with the local Labour party whether they were consciously lying as to their post-electoral intentions or just not able to read the promises which the copywriter made on their behalf.
Whatever your views on the artistic merit of the graffiti on the bridge at the end of Aristotle Lane, the failure to remove it is symptomatic of a wider rot in Oxford’s public services and in policing priorities.
Neglected graffiti is of a piece with other aspects of the decline of the city. Domestic rubbish bins overflow in front gardens and streets, thanks to an “improvement” in that most basic and visible service, the weekly collection. It is weekly no longer. Public bins overflow, and the city’s reiterated assurances that they take it all very seriously are at odds with what our eyes tell us. Grass grows in the streets as in a city abandoned ahead of a siege. Autumn’s leaves will lie where they fall, or clog the drains which are no longer cleared.
Apart from the neglect, we have the positive steps taken to degrade the visible environment. From that same spot whence my reader so admired the delicate tracery of his heroes’ al fresco artwork, you can see a new mobile phone mast, slipped in one evening when no-one was there to protest, and not even placed vertically. A succession of planning decisions is quickly blighting the southward view from the bridge. The dim little men of Oxfordshire County Council’s Highways Department use Aristotle Lane as a repository for all the sign-posts and yellow paint they cannot find a use for elsewhere. What is the difference between the ignorant vandalism of the yob with a spray can and the ignorant vandalism of the pen-pushers in the council’s planning office or the highways department? The yobbos will grow out of it eventually. One day we will have an administration which actually does things instead of merely promising them, and the bridge will be cleaned. The formalised vandalism of the planners will continue for as long as democracy can be thwarted by developers’ money, and the results – the shoddy buildings and the ruined views – will be with us for ever.
So while I cannot agree with the commentator’s analysis of the cultural and aesthetic value of the graffiti, it is not the worst addition to the view from the bridge. Nor, indeed, are things aesthetic the only downside of authority which neglects its responsibilities. Just by the Aristotle Lane bridge, the drug dealers ply their trade with impunity, well aware that no-one will disturb them except their customers. I will write separately about that.